We talk about hyphens in several different articles on this site. One article distinguishes hyphens from en and em dashes. Another talks about open, closed, and hyphenated compound words. This article focuses on using a hyphen with adjectives.
Start with a Quiz on Hyphen Use
Can you tell which of these sentences correctly employ the hyphen?
- The injured boy is five-years-of-age.
- The five-year-old boy was injured.
- The injured man is twenty-five years old.
- I hope you can come up with an easy-to-remember rule to help me know when to use the hyphen.
- I hope you can come up with a rule that is easy-to-remember.
- The four-year-old ran to the bramble-covered fence rail, where she charmed a tough, too-tall-to-tango hombre.
Check Your Hyphen Knowledge
Hyphens are used correctly in sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6.
Hyphens are unnecessary in sentence 1 because the phrase “five years of age” is not being used as a single adjective.
In sentence 2, however, the phrase “five-year-old” is being used as a single descriptor for the noun “boy.” Not one of the words in that phrase would work alone; that is, he is not a “five boy,” a “year boy,” or an “old boy.” We have to pull all those words together to form a single adjective with a meaning distinct from that of any one of those words used alone.
The hyphen in sentence 3 is correct because we always use a hyphen in compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine.
(NOTE: Although other style manuals differ, the Chicago Manual of Style advises us to spell out numbers that can be written in three words or fewer. Thus, we have spelled out “twenty-five” rather than using the numeral “25.” Numerals are to be used, however, in reference to page numbers, section numbers, item numbers, and the like, such as when we refer to “sentence 2,” above.)
The difference between sentences 4 and 5 is similar to the difference between sentences 1 and 2: In sentence 4, “easy-to-remember” is a single descriptor in front of the noun “rule.” In sentence 5, however, the description “easy to remember” follows the noun and should not be hyphenated.
Sentence 6 correctly hyphenates “four-year-old” because that phrase modifies the elliptical noun “girl.” That is, although we do not see the word “girl” in the sentence, it is nonetheless part of the construction. Thus, “four-year-old” is hyphenated as a multi-word, single descriptor preceding a noun.
The descriptions “too-tall-to-tango” and “bramble-covered” are also correctly hyphenated in sentence 6 because they precede the nouns they modify. Notice that we did not include the word tough in the hyphenated phrase “too-tall-to-tango” because it is a separate adjective. “Too-tall-to-tango” consists of four words but functions as a single descriptor.
Remember the Rule about –ly Adverbs and Hyphens
Keep in mind, though, that we never use a hyphen between an –ly adverb + adjective combination in front of a noun or pronoun. Here are examples with the –ly adverb + adjective constructions:
- She was a highly motivated employee.
- Some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year were not honored at the Academy Awards ceremony.
- The person who just boarded our bus is a nationally known scientist.
The Hanging Hyphen
Sometimes we must use a hanging hyphen to indicate that we have two hyphenated adjectives preceding a noun:
- The course covered nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.
- The socially constructed gender binary is reinforced by use of pronouns such as him- and herself.
Hyphens Don’t Need Spaces and Are Not the Same as Slashes
Two final points about using a hyphen:
- First, we never put a space before or after one (except, as we just pointed out, in the case of a hanging hyphen).
- Second, we cannot use a forward slash in place of a hyphen. Slashes indicate an either/or relationship between a pair of words, while the hyphen suggests a connection between them. We can write about the value of “parent-child interaction” or “client-attorney privilege” but not of “parent/child interaction” or “client/attorney privilege” because “parent OR child” and “client OR attorney” is illogical in these contexts.
Hyphens are widely misused by writers, but this discussion covers only one kind of hyphen-related usage problem. Read more on other hyphen issues (as well as issues with en dashes and em dashes) elsewhere on this site.
Where do we need a hyphen with adjectives in the following sentences? Some sentences may be correct.
- Schools are often categorized according to the number of free and reduced lunch students enrolled.
- Highly motivated working parents find enriching after school programs for their children.
- Fred was applauded for his behind the scenes efforts to raise the capital necessary to launch the company.
- Our long range plan included several company specific marketing strategies.
- Home based educational services are provided to children on a case by case basis.
- The play was well-rehearsed by a troupe of extremely-professional actors.
- Schools are often categorized according to the number of free- and reduced-lunch students enrolled.
- Highly motivated working parents find enriching after-school programs for their children.
- Fred was applauded for his behind-the-scenes efforts to raise the capital necessary to launch the company.
- Our long-range plan included several company-specific marketing strategies.
- Home-based educational services are provided to children on a case-by-case basis.
- The play was well rehearsed by a troupe of extremely professional actors. [Hyphens were deleted after “well” and “extremely.”]
©2001 Get It Right. Revised 2019.